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Out on Their Cans, With Cancer

The Sun-Times Media layoffs: as good an example as any of what decent people do to decent people in a bad economy.

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As Stalin supposedly said, one death is a tragedy, but a million deaths are a statistic. Reports of layoffs at Sun-Times Media have been coming fast and furious, yet I haven't received a single anguished missive about the company's recent decision to shut down the entire chain of 11 Sun weeklies in the western suburbs. The one mention of it was a passing detail in an e-mail to me about suburban sports coverage.

CEO Jeremy Halbreich shrugged off the move. "They represented such a minuscule percentage of our total revenues," he told me. "On the surface it begs the question, is this an activity, an effort that is worth our doing?"

What percentage?

"A fraction of one percent of annual revenues," he said.

As for how many people the Sun papers employed, Halbreich couldn't say. A lot of the sales staff also sold ads for other Sun-Times Media papers, and "even on the reporter side, a lot of what appeared in those publications was generated for other publications anyway."

It's not banished titles that distress the workers in the trenches. It's banished people. When someone at Sun-Times Media asks if I've heard the latest, the focus is almost always on a terminated colleague whose fate seems especially dire. For instance, in an e-mail bringing me up to speed on layoffs at another Sun-Times Media suburban chain, the Pioneer Press, I read:

The one that haunts me most was the layoff of one of Pioneer's three remaining drivers (another had been let go a couple of weeks before). The gentleman they let go was the first in, 6-7 in the morning—every morning, always upbeat, always "can-do." He was battling cancer, spending his days of work with a chemo pump attached. He was wearing it when they "perp walked" him out of the building last Friday. Has no family except his dogs.

Stewart Cewe is the driver. Assigned to the mail room of Pioneer's Glenview headquarters, Cewe missed four weeks of work after an August 2 operation to remove several feet of intestine. After that, he boasts, "I've been taking chemo since September and I didn't call in sick the whole time. I punched in at 7:30 every day."

But on Friday, October 29, Cewe punched in for the last time. "They said, 'Stewart, we're letting you go. Good-bye.'" He'd been with Pioneer, by his count, ten years, seven months, and 20 days.

Cewe is 71. He was already drawing social security. He was already on Medicare, and had a supplemental Blue Cross Blue Shield policy. So far, these two plans together have covered the costs of his illness.

As my informant told me, Cewe has no family—neither to come home to nor to support. His house is paid for. He has a pension from a previous job at the post office. And despite the chemo pump he wears three days a week, he says he's on the mend and expects to be around for quite a while.

Certainly the layoff has worked a financial and emotional hardship on him. "I'll be OK, I guess," he says. "I did manage to save a few dollars in my lifetime." But his income has been cut by more than half, and that's why he's applied for unemployment and is looking for a new job.

Yet if someone had to go, Cewe's limited needs made him perhaps the least cruel choice available. And he wasn't exactly perp-walked. Cewe calls Joann Lazar, the human resources boss in Glenview, a "sweetheart," a "messenger" carrying out the orders of the suits downtown but "very nice, very nice.

"They didn't search me," he adds. "They let me go down and get my stuff. They didn't follow me around, like they do some people."

Halbreich says he understands the value of human decency. "Obviously, it's something that no one looks forward to," he said about letting someone go. "No one wants to have to do it, irrespective of the reason—economic or disciplinary or what-have-you. You want to bring as much sensitivity and compassion to it as possible, realizing the person hearing the message is in a state of shock. It's not fun or easy."

But kindness doesn't answer the question that haunts anyone who's laid off: Why me? Why anyone, of course, but mainly, why me and not some other guy? I asked Halbreich if employees shown the door deserve an answer, and he said every case is different.

Cewe wasn't told, and what galls him is his suspicion that they thought he was too sick to do the job.

Paul Mollica, a Chicago employee-rights attorney, says Cewe's experience is the norm. "My experience tells me that managers who have to make termination decisions are told to be extremely circumspect," he says. "Anything that smacks of an admission is litigation fodder." Mention Cewe's age and an age-discrimination suit might result. Mention his health and you might run afoul of the Americans With Disabilities Act.

"I think employers probably foster more litigation than they prevent when they aggravate these situations by not being fully honest," Mollica says. "People want to be treated fairly. If they feel they're treated fairly, in our market they'll generally accept that."

In journalism especially, Mollica adds, "people see themselves as professionals, they see themselves as honorable, as people who have a code. To their employers, they're content creators. They're fungible. From the human resources point of view, the best way to terminate someone is with no explanation at all. Maybe a letter—but even that I'm seeing less and less of."

Another e-mail was forwarded to me from a varsity coach at Oak Park River Forest High School. "Parents and athletes," it said, "Tim Stablein was until recently the sports reporter for the Oak Leaves. After 20+ years he was let go by the Pioneer Press. To make matter worst he is suffering from cancer, and has lost his insurance. We are asking on his behalf that you contact the people below and voice your concern."

Stablein, 55, had worked 30 years at Pioneer Press. He covered prep sports in Oak Park, River Forest, and Maywood. On November 3 he got a call from Rich Martin, the chain's sports editor, telling him to report to Glenview. "I never get calls from Glenview," Stablein says. "If you get a call from Glenview these days, it's going to be bad news."

It was. Stablein is one of eight sportswriters at the company's Pioneer Press and Doings papers who just got "whacked"—Stablein's word. Three are left. He also found Lazar to be most pleasant. "She was extremely nice," he says. "She goes through everything meticulously." One of the things he remembers her explaining to him was that his medical coverage would expire at the end of November but that he could shift to a COBRA policy—for $1,606 a month. "After I got off the floor I was still too much in a state of shock to grasp that."

Without a job, where would he find $20,000 a year to pay for health insurance? His wife worked, but when we spoke he still wasn't clear whether her insurance would cover his preexisting condition, and even if it did whether he'd have to find new doctors.

Halbreich assured me that his papers would continue to play to their "traditional strengths in investigative journalism, sports (including prep sports), [and] local-local-local (including prep sports)." He didn't say how. Firing the staff sportswriters is a blunt way of promising fewer stories, more stringers. Chris Ledbetter, the varsity baseball coach at Oak Park River Forest, tells me prep coverage was a "traditional strength," but it looks to him like Oak Leaves has surrendered it. A fourth-generation graduate of the high school, Ledbetter has known Stablein since 1984, when Stablein was his Little League coach. He says, "If you want to know something about sports in these communities—not just Oak Park River Forest but Proviso East and Proviso West—you don't go to Google, you go to Tim Stablein. He went to the football games. He went to the basketball games. He went to the cross-country meets. He wasn't calling and saying 'How'd you do tonight?' He was at the games."

Ledbetter wonders, "Who will cover the youth sports in town? Go online [to the Oak Leaves website] and see how glaring the difference is. The preview of the girls' basketball team is a form filled out by the coach. In the past Tim's always had a story line—about a player, the tradition of the program . . . it always had an angle to it."

The importance of Oak Leaves to his athletes, Ledbetter explains, was that it published their names and described their feats. "You're talking about generations of kids who grew up with scrapbooks of their accomplishments, of their teammates' accomplishments. Every Wednesday you counted on that there were going to be one or two articles on the particular sport you were competing in, and in that article there'd be eight to ten names of kids you were competing with, and it was the scrapbook of your participation in high school athletics."

Stablein knows how much support he's getting from the schools he used to cover because Rick Hibbert, sports editor for Pioneer's western group, has forwarded the e-mail to him as it comes in. "I've heard from Oak Park River Forest," he says. "I've heard from Fenwick. Trinity, Proviso East and Proviso West. I've heard from Walther Lutheran in Melrose Park. I've heard from River Forest Little League. I've heard from Oak Park River Forest Pony League."

He's more touched by this than anybody knows—because no one has heard from him. "Tim was extremely devastated," Ledbetter tells me, "and any attempts to call him have been unsuccessful."

Stablein explains: "I genuinely like these people, I like them very very much," he says. "If I didn't care about these people it would be a lot easier to call them back. I know about their families. They know about my family. I know about their illnesses. They know about mine."

His illness is skin cancer. "It seems to be back again," he says. He's racing to get as much treatment in as possible before his insurance lapses. "I was supposed to get biopsies done last night," he tells me, "but the referrals didn't come through."   

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